RU486 is licenced for Australia now, so all abortion problems are solved, right? Wrong.
I've written before about abortion in Australia and how common perceptions aren't necessarily accurate. Like many of the things I write for Settle Petal, this was a list, of things people may not know or realise about abortion and Australian women. Some of these things are worth revisiting in the light of last month's announcement by the Therapeutic Goods Administration that RU486 has now been licensed for distribution in Australia.
On the face of it, the TGA's announcement is a cause for massive celebration. More access to abortion choice for Australian women: hurrah! Living in Queensland, where abortion remains in the Criminal Code and is virtually impossible to access in public hospitals (even for sexual assault victims) - and where we're not averse to putting young people on trial for accessing abortion - I remain fairly dubious about how much impact it is realistically going to have for women north of the Tweed. The licence approved by the TGA only allows for RU486 to be prescribed by doctors who have undergone a training course and only for use in medical abortion for pregnancies up to 7 weeks gestation.
Commentators lauded the decision and what it will mean for women, and particularly rural and remote women, in terms of access to abortion. Knowing of a couple of regional towns in Queensland where the only GP will not provide contraception for anyone under any circumstances, I think I'll wait and see how many doctors apply for the training and receive the right to prescribe before I jump for joy. However, any step forwards is a good step in terms of broadening abortion access for women - the issue is that this announcement by the TGA is seen as one of the final barriers for women across the country to have full access to safe and legal abortion, and that's simply not the case.
While there are many legal and regulatory barriers that remain - like the fact abortion remains criminalised in some form in most states of Australia, or that pregnancy counselling services aren't legally required to disclose if they're run on an anti-abortion platform - they're not really what I'm talking about here, although they're connected to this issue. The biggest issue for many women in terms of their access to abortion can be summed up in one word: stigma.
The stigma that still surrounds abortion in Australia, and the women who choose it, is real and malicious and damaging. Ranging from full on protests outside clinics where women are harassed by pictures of bloody fetuses and 'sidewalk counsellors', to the targeting of publicly pro-choice politicians, and the the perception that women who access abortion are stupid or careless or promiscuous, stigma is pervasive. And it's something that the law can't necessarily fix. Abortion was largely decriminalised in Victoria in 2008, but there have been protests outside one of Melbourne's oldest abortion clinics for forty years that continue today. Of all the things on my list of info about abortion in Australia for that previous article, most are connected to stigma. It's not completely legal, which is partly caused by stigma as well as perpetuating stigma. It's expensive, because mostly it's provided by private clinics - hospitals are largely reluctant to get involved due to stigma and legal confusion. Myths still exist around abortion, because of stigma. You get the idea.
I've worked in a pregnancy counselling organisation. I know the damage that stigma causes. I could share a number of stories from women here, but I think I'll share my own instead, and it's one that I'd bet a large fortune that anyone working in this area will agree with: the number of women who've shared their abortion stories with me. Most of these have been relative strangers, or women I've just met, some have been people I've known for years. The common thread that binds all their disclosures together is that they've followed a conversation about my work and what it involves. The answer to the 'and what do you do for a living?' question immediately marks me as a safe haven. Most women who've shared their stories with me make a special point of telling me that they have told nobody, or only one or two other people, about their abortion. Ever. The fear of judgement prevents them from doing this, even with family or close friends. And this is what sticks with me: the trust that women put in me and other abortion rights advocates by sharing stories they can't share with their nearest and dearest. They're not looking for counselling, these women. They just want to share, because they haven't been able to before. The relief in their voices is sometimes palpable.
There is something very very wrong with a situation where women feel more able to confide in a complete stranger than in their families or friends. Stigma. It means women don't talk about their abortions, which discourages other women from talking about their abortions, so nobody talks about their abortions. Women travel to clinics alone and go through procedures alone, and make their decisions alone. And they feel alone even though one in three of us will make this decision during our lifetime.
ONE IN THREE. Think of all the women you know. About one in three of them will have had an abortion, and the rest will know somebody who has. So how many do you know about? The silence is deafening and it's scary and it's doing damage to women.
And that's why addressing the stigma is vital. Enter Reproductive Choice Australia, who instead of ranting and raving and talking and writing long-winded articles for feminist websites on the evils of abortion stigma like I am, are dancing about it. DANCING. Flash-mobbing, to be exact. While it may seem a strange vehicle to use - YAY ABORTION LET'S DANCE IN A PUBLIC SPACE - I think that's part of the beauty of this campaign for me. Discussions about abortion stigma are generally so laden with angst and heartbreak and, a lot of the time, an absence of women's voices. I think this is a beautifully positive way of saying 'enough. We've had enough. We're not ashamed.' It's already getting people talking and that can't be a negative thing - especially when the flashmob is aimed at breaking the silence.
Although this initial flashmob is in Melbourne, it's RCA's hope that other cities will pick it up and run with it and organise their own. Get in touch with them if you're keen. And if you're in Melbourne, for goddess' sake get along! It's on 30 September. THAT'S THIS WEEKEND. Sign up or get some more info here or watch the adorbs training video with all the dance moves here.
I think we're entering a really exciting new phase in feminist activism in Australia, what with this flashmob and the glitter-bombing of the NSW Right To Life conference and lots of women #destroyingthejoint and some other exciting things happening around the place. It's a fabulous time to be a feminist.
So, flashmobbing to end abortion stigma. My thoughts: hurrah! Yours?